Q & A with Jamie Unkefer, DIGSAU
Architect Jamie Unkefer is a principal at DIGSAU, an award-winning firm in Philadelphia, that received the Philadelphia AIA firm award in 2017 recognizing the firm’s consistency in producing distinguished architecture. Their work reflects their valued effort in connecting to their environment and allowing their design to be informed by its rich context and history.
Prior to founding DIGSAU, he was an Associate at KieranTimberlake in Philadelphia. He has extensive experience in the management of large-scale projects, from inception through close-out. Some of his recent key projects include Discovery Center, Global Learning Center and Library, Matchbox Fitness and Wellness Center, and the Masterplan for Delaware College of Art and Design.
Q. This year’s AIA TN conference theme is “In Scale,” recognizing the various scales of projects and design thinking – not just from its physical size but it’s context from the city level to international level. How do you tackle that spectrum? Would you speak about examples in your work where a project required you to zoom out to a city/national/ international level in order to better detail say something as small as a door handle?
A. Scale at the level of detail is a focus of our work irrespective of the size of the project. Even when we are operating in a much larger context we try not to lose sight of this as it is what ultimately defines the human experience of a place. We have a great interest in texture and materials and how they relate to the experience of scale. Ideally there is consistency in the architectural idea at all scales. An example of this in our work might be found in one of early projects, Sister Cities Park in Philadelphia. The project redeveloped parkland at the midpoint on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway between City Hall and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It included a café pavilion, pubic plaza and children’s discovery garden. The project really sought to navigate the transition from the natural landscape of Fairmountpark at one end of the Parkway with the monumentality of the city at the other. The form and materiality of the project were very deliberate in trying to relate to this idea at multiple scales.
Q. How do you assess the dynamics and identity of a place and its effect on the design approach?
A. I do think regionalism and scale are connected. Despite the increasing homogeneity of the built world, regionalism continues to contribute to the form-making and materiality of a place. In all our work we try to understand the specific context and bring that understanding into the project. Who will be performing the work, what materials are available, the architectural and ecological setting are all very important to us. Many of our ideas come from understanding the workforce and resources of a project. We seek out dialogue whenever we can.
Q. How do you cultivate innovation in your firm?
A. We are believer’s in the power of iteration. Innovation comes from seeking and rarely on the first try. We believe that to come up with solutions that make a difference, it is crucial to determine whether we are solving the right problem. We are problem seekers as much as we are problem solvers. We have found that often the best tools for exploring and communicating design ideas are physical models as they offer a direct and tactile opportunity to communicate three dimensional ideas. In all cases, we believe the tool should contribute to the act of insight.
Q. Do you have other interests outside of design that contribute to your work?
A. Everything outside of design contributes to our work. We try to keep this in mind. Most of the time our best ideas come from influences outside of the design world. All of our experiences contribute. We are a firm of eighteen and we try to take advantage of everybody’s interests and passion.
Q. Significant moments in your career – Often we earn awards and accolades that are significant from a professional level but do you have other moments or achievements that you personally find significant and more valuable?
A. I suppose each time we are selected for a new project is an achievement that I find significant! Certainly, DIGSAU being recognized as the Philadelphia AIA’s Firm of the Year in 2017 was a gratifying acknowledgement of the collective effort of the firm. Also, being selected as the 2013 Emerging Voices recipient by the Architectural League of New York was significant to us as it recognized the distinct quality of our work and put us in the company of many architecture firms for whom we have great admiration.
Q. Advice for young architects – any lessons learned you would find useful for the new design minds out there?
A. We continue to learn new lessons every day. It’s important not to let the fear of what you don’t know become a burden. Pursue ideas and ask questions. Take advantage of those around you, not just the architects but all of the many people that contribute to realizing a project.